Microsoft simply can't afford to blow the opportunity that is Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is already proving to be a huge success story for Microsoft and Xbox, both in terms of retail sales and Xbox Game Pass uptake. While critical reception of the game has been polarizing (to say the least), millions of players are flooding into the game, and seem to be having a whale of a time.

Sea of Thieves was atop Twitch in popularity during launch, and it still remains a strong contender a week later, beating Minecraft, Rainbow Six Siege, and various other hugely popular games at the time of writing. Whether that trend continues remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain – it's clear that Microsoft has a huge opportunity with Sea of Thieves — one it can't afford to squander.

Sandbox or cardboard box?

I have to give a shoutout to one of our stream friends DipDipPotatoChip for drawing this comparison, but I think it fits Sea of Thieves more closely than any other game in recent years to help explain the divisive nature of the game. In the carnage of Christmas morning, some little kids will readily discard the large cardboard box their shiny new toys came in, while others will take the box, paint it, and turn it into a rocket ship.

Sea of Thieves is similar in the sense that it is a blank canvas, filled with interacting mechanics designed to create emergent experiences. Minecraft follows a similar vein in some ways, but it also has mods, a creative construction layer, and various other systems designed to keep players hooked. Sea of Thieves is bare bones right now, and unless you're the type of extroverted gamer willing to create your own fun by interacting with other players, and, effectively roleplaying a pirate, I can understand why you might not enjoy what Sea of Thieves has to offer. That said, there's no reason why Sea of Thieves couldn't evolve to appeal to more types of gamers.

Expectation conundrum

We often have huge expectations of what Microsoft can deliver in terms of first-party games, particularly when Sony's PlayStation division is shipping photorealistic open world games like Horizon Zero Dawn. Microsoft's approach to gaming, at least recently, has been very different.

I've visited Rare, creators of Sea of Thieves, and know first-hand that the team creating assets is of a much smaller size than a company like Bungie, building Destiny, and Ubisoft, making games like Far Cry 5. You might think with its resources, Microsoft would have game developers of a similar size, but it's simply not the case.

Rare celebrates its fans in a big way.

Rare celebrates its fans in a big way.

Instead of focusing on huge, cinematic experiences in vast open worlds, recently Microsoft seems to prioritize its strengths, leveraging emergent gameplay and dynamic multiplayer systems powered by the cloud over raw content. All of Microsoft's big exclusives for 2018 — State of Decay 2, Sea of Thieves, and Crackdown 3 — are multiplayer sandbox experiences. They sideline Hollywood-style motion-captured cutscenes, mature themes, and photorealistic graphics, for low-maintenance stylized-visuals, with multiplayer sandbox mayhem as their core feature.

Multiplayer is leading the industry

Sea of Thieves might be what you call "stream bait," designed to be as fun to watch as to play, and that could prove to be a smart bet for Xbox. The games that dominate Twitch viewership, and thus virality and influence, are indeed multiplayer-first games. Fortnite in particular shares some superficial similarities to Sea of Thieves, sporting stylized cartoony graphics, with multiplayer mayhem at its core.

What is at least in part responsible for Fortnite's runaway success (as well as it being, well, free), is the sheer pace of updates the game is receiving. New weapons, mechanics, and cosmetics are being added at breakneck pace, adding new reasons to play.

Epic Games is also a large and established studio, and they know the Unreal Engine upside down, inside out and backwards, given the fact they make it. Both of these factors probably help speed up the process of updates, but I can't help but wonder if Rare has the staff size it needs to keep up with the demands of today's gamers.

Sea of Thieves doesn't necessarily need to follow The Division's or Destiny's model for updates, shipping large, often narrative-driven expansions requiring tons of new detailed art assets, animations, and voice work. In theory, Sea of Thieves can be far more nimble, including things like new guns, new cosmetics, and creatures relatively quickly. Rare has also described these ideas to me in previous interviews, noting that they would simply add new features as soon as they were ready, rather than waiting for more marketable update packages or expansions. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen, but as players look to games like Fortnite and Overwatch, which add both gameplay and cosmetic updates fairly quickly, I'm unsure if Rare is getting the resources it might need to meet these "live service" expectations.

Does Xbox take its service ambitions seriously enough?

The team leading Xbox has been vocal in affirming its commitment to Sea of Thieves' long-term future. There are already huge and detailed lists of ideas Sea of Thieves fans have for the game, including new monsters, new systems, new mechanics, and beyond. And even hints for what could be on the horizon in Sea of Thieves' official lore book (opens in new tab).

What will be critical, however, is how fast these updates get to players.

What will be critical, however, is how fast these updates get to players. I can see Sea of Thieves sinking fast if people believe "this is it" and quickly move on to other titles. Sea of Thieves is the first game in a long time that has truly captured mainstream attention, outside of the Forza, Gears, and Halo trinity that Microsoft all too often relies on. It also offers something truly unique like PUBG did, back when that blew up. Scaling issues has impacted PUBG in the same way it could impact Sea of Thieves, if Microsoft doesn't move fast.

If it's Microsoft's plan to create a high-quality lineup for its Xbox Game Pass subscription service, it needs to prove that it is able to deliver a high-quality service for its existing games. Given the dropoff in players and esports interest in games like Gears of War 4, Killer Instinct, and even Halo 5, I'm not sure Microsoft is taking this stuff as seriously as it should be.

Why maintain that Xbox Game Pass subscription (opens in new tab) for Sea of Thieves if it hasn't had a meaningful content update by the time your sub runs out? Hopefully, Game Pass will not only incentivize Microsoft to keep supporting these games,but also invest more in the content itself and the speed of its delivery.

Sea of Thieves is available now for Xbox One and PC, as an Xbox Play Anywhere title for $59.99, or for $9.99 per month as part of Xbox Game Pass.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • All 10 people that have XBox and not PS4 would be happy
  • I have 3 Xbox in my house, where are the other 7 so we can all be friends
  • I also have three in my house. Just need to find the other four people / boxes...
  • Well I've got three and I play online with my brother so I know he has one. But I have three friends I connect to so I think there might be thirteen xbox owners
  • Well I have two in my house.. looks like there are more of us out there... I've been looking into the game pass is it worth it? Clearly this is the threat to ask the question on since all of the Xbox owners are here...
  • Short answer: Yes
  • You can try it. If it doesn't work out for you or you feel renting game isn't your thing you could always cancel.
  • Our home has two more of them. There really ought to be a club for we weird few.
  • That list is growing, we have 3 in our house, my oldest has an Xbox One fat, my youngest daughter has an Xbox One S, and I own the Xbox One X. It's funny to because I brought 2 of the 3 Xbox One's strictly for Sea Of Thieves, and have never been happier with my decision. The game maybe polarizing, but my family is having a blast with Sea Of Thieves and that is after 80 hours of playtime so far and counting.
  • I own 2, did have a One S and the Original Xbox One, now it's just the One S and One X. As i did trade in my old Original Xbox one for it. My 2 friends both have 1 each and i'm sure there are a few others out there. So that's atleast 4, so maybe your number is a bit low there bud!
  • I want to want this game. Looks stunning but I keep hearing how repetitive and limited the game play is. I also have a really hard time getting my friends online at the same time so the fact the game heavily relies on multiplayer is a problem for me too. Lastly, these 2 issues plus the fact it's a full price game makes my decision even harder. I feel similar to how I felt about the first Battlefront game. Online only, no story mode.. Full price. Some big updates could persuade me.
  • It's the best fun you are going to have, just as soon as you figure out what it is you are supposed to do!
  • For me, it's really simple at this stage.
    From what I've seen most reviewers and critic agree that this game doesn't have enough content. It's incomplete. Why pay money now? Why not wait to see if 1) the content actually comes, 2) content is not more randomly generated fetch quests 3) content is actually worth it.
    The price will probably even drop when these update comes. Also you got to say, this is an online-only game so buying the game doesn't really mean owning the game. So we got to consider renting the game via game pass. If you think you'll play the game more than 6 months and you could think about buying if the update comes and is really worth it.
  • It's a fun game if you actually play it. If you are just a Sony fanboy who hasn't actually played the game then your comment is pointless.
  • lol I played the game so it's your comment that's pointless. :)
  • I don't doubt that Rare and Microsoft know what they're doing. Meanwhile, people keep playing SoT.
  • Hopefully. Really want the game to be a big success over a long time.
  • Just because it's MS and Rare it doesn't mean that they can't make mistakes. I'm sure they also knew what they were doing with kinect. We saw how that turned out.
  • Over 2 mil and counting. I think they'll be okay. Rare has been in business for over 30 years.
  • I'm sure they will be fine, and SoT is a hueg success, but will it be a continuous success like Counter Strike, Rainbow Six Siege, etc? That's the opportunity here. Sea of Thieves could be more than a transitory release.
  • Speaking of "Whale" of a time... It would be great to see some other ocean life in the game, like whales, dolphins, jelly fish and maybe even some eels and stingray
  • The Kraken is great but yes a Moby Dick would be good too, given the timeline.
  • Kraken is great???
  • They need to add fishing in the game, yes Pirates did do some fishing. Hell you can even do that in Far Cry 5. Why isn't it in Sea of Thieves where you sail on ships on an open sea? The Sea should be filled with fish. You can either use the fish to eat for health, or sell it for gold. Just another feature they can add to the mechanics. You can also fish for whales, sharks and other ocean life. Also how about more monsters, and not just one "The Kraken"? They could really make this game the ultimate pirate sim game, but it's lacking these types of features that makes this game not worth the $60 let alone the $10 game pass price. I'm just not playing it yet until the issue have been fixed, and i'm not going to play a game where i can't even get on to the servers.
  • I hate that SoT doesn't have fishing haha. Lack of monster types and creatures is really upsetting too. Thanks for reading and commenting matey.
  • I have an Xbox One X too, so if I counted correctly there are now more than 20 Xbox owners. Anyway I'm playing Sea of thieves through Game pass trial and I have one extra month free that came with Xbox. Right now I'm really enjoying the game but I can see how it is possible to get bored of this game after a while and surely Rare should be adding regular new content to keep the players interested. Warframe tempo seems good: players know it's coming and they play it like crazy when it's fresh and then slowly leave Warframe to play other games too while they wait for the next update.
  • Aye, hopefully Rare can build on what they've got, cus it's a little bare bones atm (get it? bones?) Thanks for reading and commenting, really appreciate it.
  • They need to trickle out updates, at least initially, fairly regularly, to keep people interested; otherwise it's going to lose its player base fast and it'll just end up like everything else outside the big multiplayer juggernauts.
  • Very good article.
    Yes, Rare/MS needs to act really quickly.
    Right now, I really don't think their response to all the criticism is great. Instead of addressing the issue/complaints they are talking about PR numbers. This reminds me of the way Sean Murray went into silence when the game was launched. There is one thing that I don't agree with:
    "Sea of Thieves is already proving to be a huge success story for Microsoft and Xbox, both in terms of retail sales and Xbox Game Pass uptake."
    From their numbers, I don't think we can say that it is a "huge success story" just yet.
    - 2m users? It doesn't mean 2m copies sold. Everything is different now because of game pass. How many of these people just use free game pass trials?
    How many will be there next month? We've seen how userbase for a game like NMS dropped so quickly after
    - Selling more than any new IP 1st party games? What does that mean? So what was the orginal IP made by a first party studio? There aren't any. If they are talking about published by MS than what are they comparing it to? Ryse, QB, Recore?
    1) There are a lot more XB1/Win10 userbase now than back then. 2) MS marketed these games A LOT more. It was literally one of the two main game talked by MS in the last 2 years. This was a bit like ending a drought. 3) And since there are no actual numbers the statement is meaningless as we don't know how well Ryse, QB or Recore started. Anyway about the article, I've said this previously, I really think MS needs to allow modding. Just let people help to improve this game. We talked about minecraft but that's one thing that helps that game. I think playing pretend pirate can be fun but it gets old after sometime. Rare can't keep saying "make your own story" and hide behind that to not create content with stories and rely on randomly generated fetch quests. It's true MS, isn't focussing on games with brilliant stories, cinematic experiences, photorealistic greaphics... They are focussing on services. But if we're comparing it to a game like fornite, then you said it right, constant updates but most important (for me) it's free. You need to have a huge userbase. A popular game that stays popular will ultimately be successful. Right now I also think this should be one of their main priorities. Get more staff if needed. Like I said NMS's cooncurrent players dropped really quickly and never really got there even after multiple good updates... The real problems is that we've already seen MS dropping online-only games soon after launching them. AOE Online or Project Spark comes to mind...
  • RE: SoT being a success story, Microsoft also measures other metrics they didn't share, such as engagement on Xbox Live, time spent in-game, etc. Sea of Thieves is doing very well there too, so I've heard. 500K new friend requests made in a week, purely due to Sea of Thieves. Whatever way you slice it, SoT has been successful so far, 2 million players, Game Pass or not, is far bigger than the vast, vast majority of games hitting Xbox One. I don't think MS is opposed to modding, I think they just haven't set up a decent enough "system" for UWP games to leverage modding properly yet. We've seen some of the ground work for this in the Alpha builds, where UWP games now have an "Addons" folder like Minecraft does, I'll bet modding is something on the roadmap. Even then though, not sure how mods would work in a game like SoT, unless they allowed people to make their own servers, a la Minecraft. And yeah you're right re: AOE, Project Spark etc, that's why I'm not optimistic in Microsoft's capability to keep it up. Gears 4 for e.g. gotten tons of updates, but nobody streams or plays it anymore, and the eSports scene is very quiet. Gears 4 Horde mode had a lot of potential for interesting new mechanics, new trap types, new classes, new bosses, new monsters... yet they just added a ton of weird gun skins that don't even fit the tone of the universe. So... idk. I want to be optimistic, but MS hasn't proven itself to be a company worth relying on lately in the consumer space IMO. Thanks for reading and your thoughtful comments :) really made my day.
  • I agree, Jez. I share the same concerns. I'm digging the game, for sure, and don't regret pre-ordering it, but I just don't understand why there is so little content. I know very little about game development, but it seems that similarly sized studios have cranked out AAA games in half the time with thrice the content. I worry that they will not be able to crank out content updates fast enough and big enough to keep most gamers interested. And they really risk peeving those left if their first content update is--as they announced it would be--paid microtransactions (pets) instead of new content.
  • I'd be amazed if the first real content update is pets, since they said that's coming month(s) down the line... hopefully they'll start drip feeding new guns and cosmetics into the game asap. If the game hasn't received any new content by the end of April... gg. Thanks for reading coip, miss seeing you around!
  • I got lucky that I grabbed the One X bundle with Sea of Thieves so I didn't pay extra for it. And so far it's been fun, but none of my friends play it, and, in fact, for the couple hours I have played it I didn't meet a single other player. I was literally just doing my own thing. The only time I saw someone else was the one time I selected crew instead of solo so I got another dude in my sloop. Suffice to say, with no one around, it got pretty boring. No achievements dropping was a bummer too.
  • They already blew it by not adding a single player campaign. Then again, being an Xbox exclusive would make sure the game wouldn't be played by the vast majority of console gamers anyway since those opted long ago for the ads-free PS4.
  • PS4 has ads too.